Going the Distance

Greeks training for the 1896 Olympic marathon

Greeks training for the 1896 Olympic marathon

Since the Manitoba Marathon is coming up, I thought I would share some of the research I did for the foot race scene in Put on the Armour of Light.

The first modern Olympic Games in Athens in 1896 featured a race from the town of Marathon to Athens and this race sparked renewed interest in long distance road races. However, the Hamilton Around the Bay Race, at 30 kilometres, was first run in 1894, two years before the Athens marathon and three years before the first Boston Marathon.

It took a while for other cities in Canada to follow Hamilton’s lead. Early running competitions in Winnipeg had taken place on the track at the Old Exhibition Grounds or at River Park during track and field meets. The maximum distance of these races was a mile and a half. And in fact, the running coaches of the day actively discouraged runners under the age of 18 from running longer distances because there was a danger, they thought, of a kind of career-ending burn out.

Starting in 1905 the Winnipeg Telegram newspaper began sponsoring an annual 20 mile run from the Telegram offices on the corner of McDermot and Albert, down Portage Avenue to a point past Deer Lodge, where there was a turnaround. This race continued for at least eight years.


Tom Longboat

During these years, Canadian runners were racking up wins in North American racing circles. Tom Longboat, an Onondaga distance runner from the Six Nations of the Grand River First Nation Indian reserve near Brantford, Ontario, won the Hamilton race in 1906 and the Boston Marathon in 1907. He had a successful career as a professional runner, including a world championship, until his enlistment in the Canadian Army during World War I.

Winnipeg’s John D. Marsh was right up there with Longboat. In 1906, Marsh beat the Olympic champion, Alf Sherring, at a 5 mile exhibition race in Winnipeg. Marsh did well in the lucrative professional running circuit all over North American, winning, among other races, the All Canadian Marathon Derby in Toronto in 1909.

May 2 is Authors for Indies Day


May 2 is the inaugural “Authors for Indies Day” in Canada. Writers all across the country will be honouring the independent booksellers who champion their books every other day of the year.

I’ll be helping out at Whodunit Mystery Bookstore on May 2. I’ll be chatting with you punters starting at 1pm. At 3pm, I’ll be doing a talk on Scottish mystery books. And we’ll all have nummies.

Winnipeg is a great book town and we’re lucky to have the number of bookstores we do, small and large. They’re still here in spite of a very difficult environment but we can’t be complacent. Think about what this city would be like without Whodunit, or Bison Books or McNally Robinson.

On May 2, support your local independent bookstore by dropping by and buying a book or two.

See Whodunit? Bookstore here: http://www.whodunitcanada.com/home.

See the “Authors for Indies” website here: http://www.authorsforindies.com/

The Victorian Back Yard

I was flapping my gums in a recent post about that golden time when we all used to sit on our front verandas interacting like crazy with our neighbours and in general going all Jane Jacobsy. Like most romantic notions, this one needs to be tempered with reality. David, aforementioned walking urban encyclopedia, pointed out to me that there were some very practical reasons why our Victorian ancestors would choose to sit out at the front of their houses, rather than in the back. Those reasons were: the coal chute, the garbage cans and the outdoor privy.

The older neighbourhoods in Winnipeg were designed with back lanes long before the days when car ownership was common. These lanes accommodated the service wagons that collected garbage, brought coal to your house and periodically dug out the contents of your privy. The Victorians would rather have died than talk about the latter, which is what has made research for this post difficult. In fact they did die of typhoid fever in sufficient numbers that the city finally banned outdoor privies and made sewer connections mandatory for property owners. That finally brought an end to the typhoid epidemics that regularly plagued Winnipeg prior to 1910.

I’ve looked for a photograph of an ordinary back yard c 1900 without success. So, meanwhile, here’s another fantastic veranda. It’s Dalnavert Museum, the Hugh John Macdonald house, now taking on a new lease on life under the management of the Friends of Dalnavert Museum.


Dalnavert Museum

Manitoba Book Awards 2015

stack of booksThe nominees for the annual Manitoba Book Awards were announced this week. And I was very excited to see that Put on the Armour of Light has made it to the short list for the Carol Shields Winnipeg Book Award. Also wonderful to note that Alison Preston and Allan Levine, both of whom have appeared on portage and slain, are nominated too. Preston’s Blue Vengeance is on the short list for the Margaret Laurence Award for Fiction and Levine’s Toronto: Biography of a City is nominated both for the McNally Robinson Book of the Year and the Alexander Kennedy Isbister Award for Non-Fiction.

Congratulations to all the nominees. The depth of the lists shows the richness of talent available here.

See the complete list of nominees here: http://manitobabookawards.com/

Homage to the Veranda

I indulged my nostalgia for the veranda by setting several key scenes in Put on the Armour of Light on the veranda of the Skene house on Balmoral Street.

213 Home St. 1915 AOM Foote N2473

213 Home St, 1915, AOM Foote N2473

Something valuable was lost when, after WWII, new suburban houses were built without the large street-facing verandas that had dominated entrances for several generations. When the front veranda became the back deck, we lost a unique and more social space. Front verandas are that neutral place where you can sense the doings of the house, yet not get caught up in them. Or you can view the street without being on the street. In strait-laced Victorian society, some liberties were allowed on the veranda. You would be within eyeshot and earshot of a chaperone, yet be alone with a person of the opposite sex. In the days before air-conditioning, the family could sit out on the veranda in the evening, mother with her mending, father reading the paper by the light of a coal oil lamp, both of them keeping an eye out for their children who would be playing somewhere close by with their friends. Because houses of that era were built close together, you might chat back and forth with your neighbours who would also be sitting out on their verandas.

Victorian and Edwardian house builders in Winnipeg created some great verandas.

residences A D Irish & H. Benard 1903

residences of A. D. Irish & H. Benard, 1903

Or, equally fascinating but a little more modest.

Sanderson Terrace Carlton St 1903

Sanderson Terrace, Carlton St., 1903

Burning Books in Mosul

February 22 to 28 is Freedom to Read week in Canada. Not so in Mosul, in Northern Iraq, where ISIS has just bombed the Mosul Public Library, destroying a reported 10,000 books and 700 rare manuscripts. The attack, which took place on Feb. 22, involved the use of Improvised Explosive Devices (IEDs). Because of the difficulty of getting reliable news out of Iraq, sources differ as to the extent of the damage, the number of volumes involved, whether some books have been “booknapped” by ISIS and squirrelled away somewhere, or whether all have been destroyed. What is clear is that ever since ISIS gained control of Mosul in 2014, it has undertaken a campaign of cultural “cleansing” that involves destruction and ransacking of museums, libraries, universities and historic sites. Unverified photographs show piles of books being burned in public squares. Churches and historic sites of the Christian minority in Mosul have been particularly targeted and most of the Christians of the city have now fled.

mosul book burning

Book burning in Mosul. Photograph source is unverified.

Why mourn the loss of books, when so many innocent lives have been snuffed out in this conflict? I don’t mean to minimize that tragedy in any way or to rank the loss of a book as higher than the loss of a human life. But when you burn, say, a rare manuscript, a unique cultural item, even if copies or photographs exist, no mere facsimile will make up for the loss of the original. That is a loss that will be felt by every succeeding generation.

Read more here: http://www.independent.co.uk/news/world/middle-east/isis-burns-thousands-of-rare-books-and-manuscripts-from-mosuls-libraries-10068408.html

From Novel to Screen

Duddy Kravitz

The Apprenticeship of Duddy Kravitz (1974)

If you’re fascinated by the process of adapting a novel or short story for the screen, Cinemathèque, McNally Robinson Booksellers and the Manitoba Writer’s Guild are presenting a series of movie screenings followed by discussions on that very subject.

Participants are encouraged to read the book in advance of seeing the film at Cinemathèque. After the movie, discussion will be led by Winnipeg Free Press columnist Alison Gillmor. The events take place on Wednesday evenings at 7PM once a month from January to June. The first film was Sarah Polley’s 2006 “Away from Her” based on Alice Munro’s short story, “The Bear Went Over the Mountain.” Next on Feb. 25 will be “The Apprenticeship of Duddy Kravitz” (1974) based on the novel of the same name by Mordecai Richler.

To register for the discussion and screenings, sign up in advance at 204-925-3456 ext. 106. Tickets $9 per screening.

For information go to: https://www.winnipegfilmgroup.com/event/from-novel-to-screen-the-apprenticeship-of-duddy-kravitz/

Other films in the series are:

Persuasion (1995), March 25
Crash (1996), April 29
High Fidelity (2000) May 27
Rachel, Rachel, (1968) June 24

Two Assiniboine Parks

My friend David, a walking encyclopedia of Winnipeg urban history, asked me why I had mis-named the park mentioned along the route of the foot race in Put on the Armour of Light. And that reminded me of this photograph and its story.

AM Assiniboine Park c 1910 N25 Fort RougeThe Archives of Manitoba description of this photograph says, “Assiniboine Park 3 N25”. When I first looked at it some years ago, I said to myself, “There’s something wrong here.” I count at least four houses in the background. But the photo looks as if it dates from about 1905 and at that time, houses would not have been visible from Assiniboine Park, the large suburban city park that all Winnipeggers know and love. Tuxedo, the suburb on the eastern edge of Assiniboine Park, was not developed until the 1920s and 1930s. And also, the style of the plantings and the rustic bench and the bandstand in the distance didn’t fit with the more natural English landscape style of Assiniboine Park.

I thought that the photograph had been mis-labelled. I was wrong about that, but it wasn’t until I looked in Henderson’s Directory for 1900, that I found out why.

What we know today as Fort Rouge Park—located on the south bank of the Assiniboine River, off River Avenue in Fort Rouge—was originally called “Assiniboine Park”. It was, in fact, the first land purchased by the newly minted Winnipeg Public Parks Board in 1893.

When the land was bought for the large suburban park west of the developed part of the city in 1904, the Board decided to name the new park, “Assiniboine Park”. This meant that they had to rename the existing Assiniboine Park, and so it became Fort Rouge Park.

So David was right. The park that my fictional runners run past was Assiniboine Park in 1899, not Fort Rouge Park, as I named it in the book. But I knew my Winnipeg readers would be confused if Charles and Trevor were supposed to be running down River Avenue and all of a sudden they were instantly transported to a place 6 kilometres further west.

Small Mysteries

silver bauble and cm 1aFive Christmases ago, while I was passing through a park where I often walk, I noticed that someone or several someones had quietly decorated three or four of the trees with Christmas ornaments. Coloured baubles touched with frost on a tree heavy with hoar frost. Very, very pretty.

A few Christmases later, ice lanterns appeared mysteriously up and down the boulevard on my street, about one per house. After dark on Christmas eve another unknown someone moved quietly but quickly from one to the next, lighting them. They burned throughout the night and well into Christmas day. And then the mysterious someone lit them again Christmas night.

These gestures on the part of people I don’t know gave me and my neighbours a huge amount of pleasure. In a way, I don’t want to know who the unknown perpetrators are. I hesitated before posting about it here in case too much attention might take some of the magic out of the experience. Because magic it is. The decorations are back on the trees again this December. And I’m really hoping the lanterns will be back, too. But this year, for the first time, we’ll be contributing some of our own.

This Christmas I’ll raise a glass to my wonderful, unknown neighbours who bring light and colour to the bleak midwinter. Merry Christmas and Happy Holidays to all.

Guest Blogger, John Baillie

It’s a pleasure to introduce my first guest blogger, John Baillie. John has two traditionally published books: a collection of poetry titled Destination Mutable and Midnight’s Delight, short stories featuring enigmatic Winnipeg private investigator Jason Midnight. In recent years he’s spent an egregious amount of time adapting the reality television elimination show concept to literature on his popular bi-weekly Reality Fiction blog. Jason Midnight will play a central role in the third Reality Fiction Contest, debuting on December 29th this year at realficone.blogspot.ca.

Also find John’s Baillie’s blog of reflections on the literary life, “Sundog Rising” at http://dogrise.blogspot.ca

Winnipeg: A Real and Imagined Geography
by John Baillie

R Beaubien Townlight 1 sharp, B & W

Renee Beaubien

When Midnight’s Delight was published in 2006 (now out of print) and placed on the Internet as part of the fledgling e-book movement, my editor told me it’s great that your book is set in Winnipeg, but you have to make Winnipeg come alive for the world. Imagine someone reading your book on a computer screen in Pakistan.

I don’t know if Midnight’s Delight ever made much of an impact in Pakistan. But also through the magic of the Internet, I did discover it was picked up as a recommended travel read on a Chinese airline. So the editor had a point.

But you know what? It’s tricky pinning down a city.

Twelve of the thirteen Jason Midnight stories in Midnight’s Delight are set in specific locations in Winnipeg. However, thanks to the enormous time delay that occurs between writing and publishing, some of the locations I wrote about didn’t exist anymore by the time the book came out. There was a scene in an early draft of one story very specifically set in a store in Polo Park that was gone before the book was accepted for publication. What’s a poor writer to do? Put a disclaimer at the beginning of every story saying “The events that follow happen in the Winnipeg of June, 1991. More or less the third week.” Changing the month and year as necessary as locations shift and disappear from tale to tale?

Catherine had the right idea setting Put on the Armour of Light in 1899 — even if she did fudge the geography a little bit for the necessities of the plot. She’s dealing with a Winnipeg fixed in time. And not one where Chinese tourists will easily be able to challenge any relocations she might sneak in.

I found my answer was to create a uniquely Jason Midnight Winnipeg. Sure, sneak in the odd fixed real landmark that you hope isn’t going to change any too quickly. But other than that, take the essence of what’s out there, shift it a bit to make it your own, and convey the city more through how the eyes and the mind of the protagonist perceive it than through mappable geography.

I ended up writing this promotional bit to go with Midnight’s Delight to illustrate the point:
Winnipeg — The Big Mosquito — Winnipeg —

If you don’t know it, you’ve never walked an empty downtown city street on a Sunday afternoon …

Winnipeg — Home of the Midnight Detective Agency — Home of Jake Fincowicz who can change his name on a whim to Jason Midnight and spend the rest of his life living up to that mistake. Where a Private Eye can put a sign on his door saying “No Case Or Solution Too Ridiculous To Be Considered” … and they aren’t.

Jason Midnight’s Winnipeg — where he can hear the wilted strains of the Jarvis Avenue Allstars belting out cool swing on an even colder night from the Pungent Onion Club as the girls strip right down to the bone; where a dame can get so deep into your head she can rewrite your internal musical soundtrack; where the puck never crosses the goal line in a hockey game without the right hoodoo on it; where the ghosts of ancient killers haunt every shadow of the old Exchange District on the wrong wintery nights; where the hookers run with the demons and the demons haul you off into your inner fractal at an odd angle in the alley behind the bar; where the Devil runs the only serious betting game in town; and where certain rich women can be had for a chocolate bar — the right chocolate bar. Winnipeg.

Jason Midnight’s home — Jason Midnight’s horror —
Jason Midnight’s Delight.

Take a slow left turn into Jason Midnight’s Winnipeg. You’ll never be blown past Portage and Main the same way again.
The idea must have worked. As I said, China was willing to fly by it.